Fathers are more attentive to their toddler daughters than they are to sons, according to a new study.
“If the child cries out or asks for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,” said lead researcher Jennifer Mascaro of Emory University. “We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children.”
The study analyzed brain scans and recordings of the 52 parents’ interactions. Fathers agreed to clip a small handheld computer onto their belts and wear it for one weekday and one weekend day. The device randomly turned on for 50 seconds every nine minutes to record any sound during the 48-hour period.
“People act shockingly normal when they are wearing it,” Mascaro said. “They kind of forget they are wearing it or they say to themselves, what are the odds it’s on right now.”
Fathers also had MRI brain scans while viewing photos of an unknown adult, an unknown child, and their own child with happy, sad or neutral facial expressions.
The study found that fathers of daughters had greater responses to their daughters’ happy facial expressions in areas of the brain important for visual processing, reward, emotion regulation, and face processing than fathers of sons.
The brains of the fathers of boys responded more robustly to their sons’ neutral facial expressions. There was no significant difference in the fathers’ brain responses to sad facial expressions from sons or daughters.
“Most dads are trying to do the best they can and do all the things they can to help their kids succeed, but it’s important to understand how their interactions with their children might be subtly biased based on gender,” Mascaro said.
The study is published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience